” It may be a myth. If it happened, it wasn’t on the grand scale that most people think.” We were visiting the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan province of Mexico with Renan an exchange student from Mexico both Dave and I had taught in our high school classes. Our expert guide had been hired by Renan’s father. The guide repeatedly made reference to the long held belief that Mayans practiced human sacrifice. He wanted us to question that assumption.
Mel Gibson’s Hollywood blockbuster Apocolyptico brought the history of the Mayan people into the limelight. Gibson’s movie recounts in gory detail the human sacrificial practices of the Mayans and cites them as the reason for the eventual downfall of Mayan civilization.
Our guide at Chichen Itza questioned Gibson’s theory. He said human sacrifice might never have happened among the Mayans, or if it did, it wasn’t a frequent practice. He told us Spanish Christians invented or greatly exaggerated the extent of the ritual of human sacrifice. They wanted to portray the Mayans as heathens in need of conquering and conversion.
Our guide, anxious to downplay the human sacrifice angle, wanted to show us all the progressive things the Mayans accomplished. We visited the massive Temple of Kukulkan. Shaped like a pyramid its construction encodes detailed information about the sophisticated Mayan calendar. We saw the Observatory, the building from which Mayan astronomers plotted the movements of the planets, the sun and the moon.
At the Ball Court we learned how highly trained Mayan athletes engaged in competitive sporting events. The Ball Court offered a stunning example of Mayan acoustical technology. A whisper at one end of the site could easily be heard by someone standing 545 feet away at the opposite end.
We had our picture taken at the Temple of a Thousand Columns. It once housed an outdoor market where Mayan commercial ventures flourished. We stopped to admire beautiful designs on another building called The Nunnery. Its frescoes and engravings are a testament to the artistic achievements of the Mayans. Our guide took us past a large set of artillery-shell-shaped stones and showed us how they produced melodic tones when tapped with a stick. The Mayans were clearly accomplished musicians.
After our tour I was convinced the Mayan civilization had been highly advanced but did that necessarily mean they hadn’t practiced human sacrifice? I had read that hundreds of bodies of supposed sacrifice victims had been found at Chichen Itza. Our guide had explanations. He said the mass graves the Spanish conquerors found were for victims of warfare not human sacrifice. He said other sites where bodies were discovered served as burial grounds for royalty, not death chambers for human sacrifice victims.
Mel Gibson’s movie Apocolyptico suggests the Mayans’ human sacrifice practices created a blood lust for killing that eventually destroyed their society. Some historians would disagree and claim it was contact with the European diseases the Spanish brought to Mexico that decimated the Mayans. Who is right?
We may never know. Unfortunately zealous Spanish priests anxious to eradicate the ‘heathen’ writings of the Mayan people had most of their manuscripts burned. Only a few remain and they do not provide enough information to decode Mayan hieroglyphics and thus find definitive answers to historians’ questions about the Mayans.
History is constantly being rewritten as new information is brought to light and new questions are asked. Mel Gibson’s movie raised some troubling questions about the Mayan people. This may not be a bad thing. Perhaps it will encourage more North American tourists to leave the beaches and resorts of Mexico, and travel to places like Chichen Itza and Tulum to discover answers to questions about the great Mayan civilization for themselves.
Other posts about myths…….